African-American artist Jamea Richmond-Edwards has three sons. When we spoke to her about her upcoming exhibition at The Southern, Take Me Away, she was pumping breast milk for the youngest. “With everything going on with the news … it’s nothing new, but when you’re seeing those images, it really freaks you out,” she says, referencing the deaths of young black men in America. “It’s literal trauma. It’s fear.”
So, she decided to do something about that fear, something she’s been working on since she was a kid growing up in Detroit: she decided to create art. “I wanted to create work to escape from it,” says Richmond-Edwards. “I think it’s good to acknowledge the necessity of self-preservation.”
Take Me Away features a series of images of black women in moments of contemplation, some with their eyes closed, others looking into the distance. Some of the images are mixed media paintings, with pieces of collaged paper adorning the figures, some cut into the delicate almost-triangular shapes of feathers.
In creating these works Richmond-Edwards says that she did get to escape her reality, if only for a few moments. And then she returned to contemplating her role as a black female artist in America. “It’s America the great, right? It’s arguably one of the greatest countries,” says Richmond-Edwards. And yet, she points out, “Slavery is a defining moment. I want to argue that the war on drugs is too.”
Since her early days in Detroit, Richmond-Edwards has been creating art that speaks to what she calls the “phenomenon” of the war on drugs. Richmond-Edwards’ mother had substance abuse problems, and got clean when her daughter was young. Growing up in a lower income neighborhood, Richmond-Edwards recalls seeing the negative impact of drugs throughout her community. “I thought it was the norm until I went away to college,” she says.
That’s when she started to realize that the rest of the country wasn’t mired in the poverty and violence associated with the drug use she’d grown up with. She’s passionate about the war on drugs; she sees Nixon’s 1971 initiative that increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and implemented mandatory sentencing for drug dealers, as a huge failure.
She’s not alone in this belief. Just last week hip-hop mogul Shawn Carter (a.k.a. Jay Z) narrated an op-ed video for the New York Times titled, “The War on Drugs is an Epic Fail.” In the video, which is just under four minutes long, Carter and illustrator Molly Crabapple demonstrate how the crackdown on drugs has put far more black and Latino offenders in prison than white ones.
“I feel like I’m a poster child,” says Richmond-Edwards, who calls her life a “success story.” Compared to a lot of people in her neighborhood, she was. That doesn’t mean that she has avoided tragedy, though. Her brother was murdered two years ago, her aunt 10 years ago. “A lot of my work is autobiographical,” she says. Despite the personal aspect of her work, she only paints anonymous figures, women she calls her avatars.
It’s on these figures that Richmond-Edwards projects her art’s message, one that she says is neither political nor blatant, but nuanced. When her brother died, Richmond-Edwards dreamt that she created a series of works after his death. It was images from these dreams that she painted, still using a female figure to represent her brother’s death. “I feel most comfortable using my women,” she says. “I’m just starting to unpack what that means.”
How does the war on drugs, a controversial and global issue, converge with Richmond-Edwards’ art, work that she herself calls “really personal and emotional?” “There’s a certain population that is obscure even to their families,” says Richmond-Edwards. She’s talking about poor, black, drug addicted women, like the ones from the community she grew up in. And she wants to shine a light on them.
She’s also talking specifically, about 11 women who were found in Anthony Sowell’s house in Cleveland. In 2009 police found 11 bodies in Sowell’s house; because the house was near a paper mill, neighbors hadn’t smelled the rotting flesh. The victims all had one thing in common: they had all struggled with drug addiction. In response to this tragedy Richmond-Edwards created a series of images of black ink on black paper. “You have to get up really close to see the work,” she says of these pieces. “Conceptually, I wanted people to see things they cannot see.”
“I’m not necessarily putting [these subjects] in a positive or negative light,” Richmond-Edwards says. “I’m shining a light on the phenomenon of forgetting.”